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Jewish Journal

TV: Should Jews save the werewolf from extinction?

by Jeremy Wexler

October 26, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Seth Green as Daniel Oz

Seth Green as Daniel Oz

Although few people in the Jewish community noticed, on May 2, 2000, a watershed event occurred: The last in a long line of Jewish werewolves disappeared when "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the wildly popular vampire dramedy series, said goodbye to Oz, the character played by Seth Green. Oz left the show explaining that he had to go off to learn how to "control the wolf within." With this, a 60-year-long thematic liaison between Jews and werewolves ended. In fact, the whole werewolf myth seems to be in jeopardy. In this age of sophisticated computer graphics, werewolves have become steroid-bulked but ultimately vapid monsters - second fiddles to vampires. (Witness 2004's pitiable "Van Helsing," the year's 16th-place box office finisher.)

The decline of the modern-day werewolf should be of concern, since it is largely a metaphor for being Jewish in the 20th century. Consider the modern werewolf narrative: A hairy young outsider becomes saddled with an identity he doesn't want or particularly like, the meaning of which is told to him by an old European lady speaking a lot of mumbo jumbo. He is in love with a blonde girl who loves him back, but their love is doomed. Eventually he gets chased and killed by a bunch of peasants with pitchforks and torches. And, oh, yes, he feasts on human blood, but it's not his fault.

The parallels between Jewish ideas of how non-Jews perceived us and the lifecycle of the werewolf aren't surprising, considering that Jews effectively created the modern werewolf. Given how much has changed for Jews over the past half-century, should we try to save the werewolf or let him wander off into the California sunset? From ancient Greece on, there have been stories of people who willingly or unwillingly became wolves. Yet, most of what you know about werewolves comes from Hollywood. In 1940, a producer at Universal Pictures told Curt Siodmak to write a werewolf picture. Siodmak was a German Jew who had fled his native country in 1933 after hearing a virulently anti-Semitic speech by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda. Several silent films as well as one talkie on the subject had been made between 1913 and 1940, but none had been commercially successful. "The Wolf Man" was wildly so, and quickly became the template for future werewolf tales. Most of the werewolf traits familiar to contemporary readers come from Siodmak's films -- including, most fundamentally, the transformation of the werewolf into not just a sympathetic figure but also the very subject through whose perspective the action is seen. In fact, Siodmak wrote an early draft of the script in which the lead actor was only seen as the Wolf Man through his own perspective, reflected in ponds of water and so forth so that it would never be clear to the audience whether his transformation was real or psychological. Siodmak made the werewolf into the classic existentialist anti-hero. In later years, Siodmak slipped up in at least one interview and said that "The Wolf Man" was set in Germany, although it is in fact set in Wales. Still, Siodmak kept his Jewish references close to the vest.

By contrast, the most explicitly Jewish treatment of the werewolf by Hollywood is John Landis's 1981 film, "An American Werewolf in London." Yet it makes constant reference to Siodmak's wolf man. In "American Werewolf," Jewish American kids David Kessler and Jack Goodman (played respectively by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are on a European road trip. While in the moors of Wales, Jack is killed and David becomes the titular beast after surviving the attack. In an interview, Landis said that though he used a less Jewishly evocative setting of Wales for his film (at least for the early scenes), the idea for "American Werewolf" came to him while he was in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, despite the setting, Landis did not shy away from the kinds of parallels to European Jewish history that Siodmak left implicit: While David is in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he has a dream in which he is back at home with his family in America; the doorbell rings, and in come Nazi-clad wolf monsters who murder David's family before his eyes.

What is one to make of the young Jewish man's transformation into a beast identified with the Jew haters of Europe? Landis called the transformation into a werewolf a metaphor for teenage male sexuality. But there is also a quality of adolescent revenge fantasy found in the werewolf tale. In fact, Landis said that fantasies and nightmares of death at the hands of the Nazis were part of his own psychic landscape as a boy growing up in the 1950s. In the fantasy world of the werewolf movie, the Jew, or Jew surrogate, becomes as dangerous and powerful as his tormentors.

Landis wasn't the first to see an allegory for adolescence in the werewolf's transformation. In 1957, Herman Cohen cast a young Michael Landon in "I Was a Teenage Werewolf." In fact, the teenage werewolf is a subspecies until itself with 1985's underappreciated movie "Teen Wolf" and the fabulous Canadian film "Ginger Snaps" as prominent examples.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was the apex of the trend that saw adolescence and monstrosity play off each other. Unfortunately, "Buffy," though marvelous in many ways, shied away from questions of ethnicity. The fictional Sunnydale, Calif., was a multihued but ultimately pareve town, except for the higher-than-average number of supernatural creatures that lived there. And Oz was the kind of Jewish werewolf that Birthright Israel might be aimed at attracting: If his character was meant to be Jewish, it was strictly an accident of birth. His Jewishness seems to have extended only as far as being sensitive, smart and short. He was good looking, a guitar player and un-Jewishly laconic. And being Jewish no longer qualified him as an outsider. Oz would never have had nightmares of anti-Semitic violence. Therein lies his failure as a werewolf: North American Jews of the "Buffy" generation are so comfortable in their skins, they don't need to put on fur. At least not in the presence of non-Jews.

So if the werewolf is no longer a viable metaphor for Jewish life among non-Jews, why should Jews go out of their way to preserve it? Let werewolves join self-help groups where they can learn to be normal members of society, ? la Oz? As the avatar of the dangerous yet sympathetic outsider, there may still be a use for a revived werewolf in Jewish popular art, but not simply to continue telling the story of a stranger in a strange land. The first modern Jewish werewolf story, "Der Volf" ("The Wolf"), was written in 1920 by Yiddish poet H. Leivick (Leivick Halpern's pen name). Leivick wrote "The Wolf" as a response to the pogroms in Eastern Europe. It is a hallucinatory story, told in verse, of a rabbi whose shtetl is destroyed and who transforms himself into a wolf through what might today be called survivor guilt. Eventually he is violently killed by a nearby community of Jews after he tries, while in wolf form, to strangle the cantor in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. In addition to giving the Jewish werewolf its first modern incarnation, "Der Volf" is the only instance of Jew-on-Jew werewolf violence.

"Der Wolf" seemed prophetic in the 1940s, when North American Jews began to understand the dimensions of the Holocaust, and indeed it resonates with postwar versions of the werewolf tale mentioned previously. But it is more than simply this. In fact, the story begins where anti-Semitism leaves off, and explores the divisions in a Jewish community that has been deformed by outside forces and is set against itself. In that way, "Der Volf" points the way to a new Jewish werewolf story.

Imagine a film in which a werewolf tears off the remains of his orange clothing and attacks the Israeli army unit sent to evacuate his settlement. Or one in which the board of a Conservative synagogue, on a reconciliation retreat after a divisive battle over firing their last rabbi, discover that the woman they have hired to replace him has an insatiable taste for human flesh. A good novel has yet to be written in which the richest, most popular boys at the Modern Orthodox high school get killed, one by one, by a giant dog and suspicion falls increasingly on Zev, the awkward kid from a family of more modest means. We can, and should, re-imagine the Jewish werewolf theme, but the old story of the doomed outsider seems to have lost its teeth.

Jeremy Wexler is a writer and occasional contributor to CBC Radio's DNTO. He is also the editor of No Damn Good, Art Music and Tomfoolery From N.D.G. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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